One of the wonderful things for me about growing up in New York was the chance to see Broadway musicals. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know (the idea of characters just spontaneously bursting into song is enough to send some running for the aisles). Some musicals struck me as so wonderful that I’d want to see them more than once, their score running through my head for days afterward (in a good way), while others, not so much (I’m talking to you, Cats).
Add to that the fact that I came from a family where Broadway albums were on the stereo almost non-stop (to this day, I can probably sing you the lyrics from your favorite classic Broadway show, even the ones I was too young to have seen in person when they first played, like South Pacific, West Side Story, and Oklahoma).
Of course, with Broadway being dark, now, for a year, the yearning to see a musical in person again on any stage — East Coast or West — is palpable (still not Cats, though). But in looking back, there are three musicals from my youth that made a huge impact at the time I saw them (original casts) and have stayed with me since. While worlds apart from each other, the common thread is the joy of the music, the heart in the storytelling, and the lure of the stage. To wit:
Fiddler on the Roof — The masterpiece musical — based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye, a Jewish milkman in an early 20th century Eastern European shtetl (small rural community) — first came to Broadway in the 1960s and lit it up for years afterward. As a young Jewish girl whose grandparents grew up in that very environment, I was captivated by the music, the humor, the romance — and I longed to play one of Tevye’s daughters, long hair streaming as they danced and sang. By turns funny, poignant, romantic, and searing, this show stole my heart a long time ago — even hearing the first few bars of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” today can send me twirling across a room, pretending the towel I’m holding is a bridal veil. One word: tradition.
Hair — If Fiddler was tradition, then Hair was everything but. The 1960s groundbreaking musical centered on a group of hippies in New York and told the story of their beliefs — make love, not war being key — and their sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Both political and poetic, joyful and angry, Hair sent shockwaves through the until-then staid musical-theater scene with its language and its — gasp! — brief nudity, and its story could not have been more timely. Interestingly enough, this edgy musical made its way to the somewhat homogeneous suburbs where both B. and I grew up. Both sets of parents took us to see it as ten-year-old kids; our respective elementary schools then performed some of its songs in stage productions. (B. played the drums for his, I played the piano for mine, and everyone kept their clothes on.) Four words: let the sun shine.
A Chorus Line — Opening on Broadway in the mid 1970s, A Chorus Line took everything we knew about musicals and turned it on its head, because it was told from the performers-as-performers point of view. The story — stories, actually — behind a group of dancers auditioning for their spot in a musical’s chorus line is riveting, both for the personal accounts of each dancer’s life and for the extraordinary talent they each exhibit. Some accounts are heartbreaking, some humorous, but all are filled with their love for dance, their need to be on stage, their unfailing commitment to keep following their passions no matter what. I was absolutely spellbound from the moment the curtain went up until the dazzling finale (oh, how I longed to be a Broadway dancer even though I was far too shy ever to have taken a dance lesson in my life!). The show ran for an astounding 15 years — even after it closed, though, the stories of those dancers and their unwillingness to let go of their dreams plays on. What they did for love is unforgettable. Two words: singular sensation.
Everyone has their favorite Broadway musical — from Phantom to Les Miz, Wicked to Miss Saigon, Rent to Chicago, Aladdin to Jersey Boys. And, of course, Hamilton to, well, Hamilton. To me, as a young girl, those Broadway lights and the players who dared to brave them were heroes. The stories they told were intoxicating; the music was hypnotic; the performances, enthralling. I was a rapt audience, wrapped up in the mystique, the possibility, the magic.
©2021 Claudia Grossman